Ask Bwana #3

Personal note: it’s been roughly two decades since I started doing these Ask Bwana articles. It was recently suggested to me that Ask Bwana, which had previously been re-published over at the Baen’s Bar — during my tenure as editor for Jim Baen’s Universe magazine — would be an excellent feature here on my own web page. I am therefore proud to re-release these for general public consumption. I’ll be doing one a week, all the way from 1 to 59. Enjoy. If you’re an aspiring writer, I hope they teach you something about this crazy business which has been my livelihood for so many years. If you’re a fan, I hope they teach you something about this crazy business which has been my livelihood for so many years. (g) If you feel the urge to say thank you, please stop by my e-book shop and do some browsing and buying!


NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #3 — May, 1995

An interesting little flamewar arose over on CompuServe a few weeks ago. Someone asked for a definition of a writer. I opined that a writer is someone who sells his writing. I further suggested that to claim to be a writer without having sold one’s writing is a misrepresentation, and that any real writer who has sweated blood and collected piles of rejection slips and worked into the wee small hours at his keyboard while the rest of the world slept and finally sold a story has a right to take umbrage at that claim.

Well, you wouldn’t believe the number — and forcefulness — of the rabid objections that were raised to that opinion, almost all by would-be writers who had yet to sell their first stories. Since tempers were flaring, I decided to let the matter drop, but here in my own column, I think I am permitted to expand upon it just a bit.

Let us pretend you are one of these unsold ladies or gentlemen who insist on calling yourself a writer. You go to a party. Or a PTA meeting. Or anywhere else where people tend to introduce themselves. And you meet someone new, and you exchange names.

The next question is obvious.

What do you do?

And you say, I’m a writer.

I’ve said that maybe 10,000 times in my life, maybe even more. 99% of the time, the next question is: What have you written?

And now you are forced to say one of two things:

Either, I haven’t written anything yet.

Or, I’ve written hundreds of truly wonderful things, only nobody has seen fit to spend a penny on it yet.

Okay, let’s say he hasn’t decided you’re a crackpot and walked off yet. Miraculously, he listens thoughtfully to your answer and sticks around. His next question is: Where can I buy something you’ve written?

And your answer is: Nowhere.

Or you could choose the bold, confident approach: Ask me again in five years and I’ll tell you.

Now, I consider that a humiliating conversation, which could easily have been avoided simply by not claiming to be something you aren’t.

2011 Update: the advent of commercially-viable self-publishing has made it more difficult to determine who is a pro and who is a blowhard. For every Amanda Hocking, who takes a pile of rejected books and turns them into self-published electronic bestsellers, there are 50 writers whose stories deserved to be rejected. I would say that if you’re making the same money that a writer who’s going about it in the traditional way is making — the equivalent of $4,000 or $5,000 US domestically on your first novel, and the equivalent of 5 or 6 cents US a word for your short fiction — then you’re a pro… but don’t expect people to believe it just because you say so. Anyone who’s interested can track, not your actual sales, but your ranking on Amazon’s Title-Z, so if they know the sales figures of people who are at approximately the same level and you’ve been…ah…exaggerating, you’ve nowhere to hide.

Okay, let’s move on to this month’s questions.


QUESTION: Why are multiple submissions a no-no?

ANSWER: The simplest answer is because editors say they’re a no-no, and you wouldn’t want to get an editor mad at you, would you?

The reason they’re a no-no is really quite simple. Almost all editors buy first rights. They don’t want to take the time it requires to read your story, re-read it, decide to buy it, possibly bounce another story of almost equal quality, and send you a contract, only to have you tell them that you just sold it to a rival editor 24 hours ago. Can you blame them?


QUESTION: Does this same concept apply to books as well? For instance, if I sent in a novel I am hoping to get published to, say, Del Rey, and I do not hear from someone within two to four months (or more), is it a “no-no” to submit it again?

ANSWER: Yes, it applies to books as well, and for the same reason.
There is one exception, and that is when your agent decides to hold an auction and tells all the recipients of your manuscript what the ground rules are: who has copies, what the floor (minimum bid) is, what the deadline is
Oh . . . and apropos of nothing, Del Rey tends to keep manuscripts a lot longer than four months.

2011 update: If your novel manuscript is in the slushpile, at del Rey or anywhere else, a year is pretty fast reporting time.


QUESTION: Can the author expressly ask for a quick answer (rejection or no) from a given magazine so that he can submit elsewhere?

ANSWER: Can you get an editor to make a quick call for your convenience? Not unless he’s a very old, very dear friend.

But you can occasionally get him to make a quick call for his benefit. For example, you’ve sold a story that you think is award quality to an anthology, and the anthology editor has given you permission to “double dip” it: to sell it to a magazine (where it will get much greater exposure) as long as the magazine will plug his anthology in the blurb.

Now, magazine editors don’t buy reprints, so the magazine editor is looking at a relatively narrow window. If it’s May, and the anthology is coming out in December, and he schedules his magazine five months ahead, he’s got maybe 5 or 6 weeks in which to buy and schedule your story; even 10 weeks is too long, because he can’t beat the anthology into print. If you explain the submission in those terms, most editors will give you a quick call; the rest will ask you not to even bother submitting.

2011 update: when I wrote the above, the magazines had circulations of from 65,000 to 100,000. That’s not the case any more. When I won a Hugo in 2005 for “Travels With My Cats”, the circulation of the digest magazine in which it had appeared was less than 17,000. E-subscriptions have helped, but not that much, so if you don’t get into a digest, that doesn’t cost you all chance for an award the way it once did.


QUESTION: Do editors always reply?

ANSWER: No, but they try to.


QUESTION: What do you look for in a story you would consider well-written?

ANSWER: Probably the same thing you would look for: Are the characters believable? Is the plot logical? Does the writer have a certain facility for pushing a noun up against a verb? Does it present a fresh and idiosyncratic worldview?

And, most importantly, did it elicit a reaction from me? Did it move me?

Time for a little pontification. I wish it wasn’t necessary, but Hugo Gernsback, who created (or at least defined) this category, stated time and again that the purpose of science fiction was to educate the readers to the wonders and possibilities of science. Fortunately no one quite buys that definition any more, but there are those who categorically state that science fiction is a literature of ideas. I have no serious argument with that as far as it goes, but it is an incomplete definition, for the idea can never be an end in itself. Properly used, the ideas of science fiction are tools to help the author accomplish what all authors in all fields of fiction strive to accomplish: to elicit an emotional response from the reader, to make him laugh, or cry, or love, or hate, or fear. In short, to make him feel. If it also makes him think, so much the better, and the author has created a richer story for it — but if the reader doesn’t feel, then all the author has done is fictionalize an essay, a polemic, or a technological crossword puzzle.

2011 update: I was being too generous to old Hugo. His definition was narrower: science fiction’s purpose was to interest young boys in the wonders and possibilities of science. Young girls were presumably too busy playing with their dolls to appreciate it. Sorry, Ursula, Connie, and all the rest of you.


QUESTION: In your experience, how much value can be attributed to shorts?

ANSWER: You can get damned cold without them in the winter.
Seriously, your question isn’t explicit enough: are you talking about artistic or commercial value?

If artistic, then a short story can have every bit as much value as a novel. Our field offers a perfect example: there have been between 30 and 40 demonstrably great works of short science fiction published this century. There may have been one or two great science fiction novels, certainly not more.

If commercial, you still have to be more explicit. What does a short story pay (excluding such unlikely-for-beginners markets as Playboy)? At best, maybe a dime a word. So 100,000 words is worth $10,000. Can a 100,000-word novel make more than $10,000? Well, the answer, as we all know, is that it can make many multiples of that, and still not approach Stephen King or even Kevin J. Anderson territory. It also has the advantage of not requiring from 15 to 20 plots, and as many friendly editors.

2011 update: Okay, now the top is a quarter a word in a small handful of venues. And even so, the answer remains the same.

Now here is the question I think you were asking: can a series of good short stories make you worth more as a novelist? The answer is a qualified yes. They really have to be more than merely good. Win a couple of Hugos, or get nominated for a Campbell or perhaps some Nebulas, and yes, the book editors will be panting for your first novel. Write and sell a dozen good but not outstanding stories to Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF, and no, you haven’t really enhanced your value as a novelist.


QUESTION: Do all first novels get small advances?

ANSWER: No. Most first novels get small advances. Some, even in this field, get upwards of $100,000. Terry Goodkind got $250,000 for his. But they have to be very special novels.


QUESTION: An agent may not be able to negotiate an advance sufficient for an author to switch his or her career on the basis of a first sale, right?

ANSWER: I suppose it depends on whether you have a wealthy spouse, or perhaps a love of welfare checks and food stamps. Which is an indirect way of saying that 98% of all first novels will not give you enough money to replace your day job. And there is no guarantee that you’ll sell a second, a third, or, especially (see Ask Bwana #2), a fourth.


QUESTION: I’m both a writer and an artist. Although I usually promote myself separately in the two fields, occasionally they overlap. I wrote one of my stories around a painting I did. I’d like to submit the story and painting for the editor’s consideration, but with the understanding that I’m not requiring that they be a joint package. Would this be a faux pas?

ANSWER: It’s an unusual enough submission so that I would certainly query the editor first. For example, Scott Edelman, whose magazine, Science Fiction Age, abounds with four-color artwork, might very well be interested and tell you to send it along; whereas Kris Rusch, who edits F&SF, which runs no artwork whatsoever, would almost certainly tell you the idea is doomed from the start, at least as far as her magazine is concerned.

2011 update: Science Fiction Age went the way of the dodo quite a few years ago; the only printzine running interior artwork these days is Realms of Fantasy. And F&SF has been edited (and owned) by Gordon van Gelder for about 15 years now.


QUESTION: Submitting my stories via mail “over the transom” seems to be getting me nowhere. Is it acceptable to submit stories to an editor if one should meet him or her at a convention?

ANSWER: Editors don’t go to conventions to read stories. Yes, from time to time you may see an editor accept a large manila envelope from a writer . . . but that’s not a speculative submission; it’s invariably a long-overdue story that the editor will take back to his office to read. If you’re a beginner, your story, like it or not, is going into the slush pile, and your editor is going to insist that it get to that destination some way other than in his personal luggage.

That’s it for Column #3; see you again next issue.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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6 Responses to Ask Bwana #3

  1. Jao says:

    How about if I work as web content writer, should I consider myself a writer or not? It is my day job — writing I mean. So shouldn’t I call myself a writer? Or do I have to make a professional sale to publishing houses before I do?

    • Mike says:

      Yes, you are a writer. And since you’re being paid, you are a professional writer. What you are not is a professional freelance writer, and that’s basically who the 59 Ask Bwana columns, and the 55-and-counting Resnick-Malzberg Dialogues that appear in each issue of the SFWA Bullletin are aimed at.

  2. If I were at a gathering of any sort and someone asked me ‘So, what do you do?’ I wouldn’t say ‘I’m a writer.’ I might ask them if they want to know what do I do to keep the lights on, or if they want to know what I *want* to be doing to keep the lights on. Then my answer would either be metals analyst for a laboratory or writer, lol.

    I’ve made a couple sales but nothing nearly enough to be a contribution to my economic happiness. I’m working on it though and maybe one day there won’t be the qualifiers in my answer about what I do 🙂

  3. YPBD says:

    That was incredibly insightful, thank you.

  4. Jao says:

    I never imagined though, that at some point in my life, I’d get tired of writing. Somehow, I still consider myself not as a real writer, but just a dabbler of sorts. Maybe what I really want to call myself is a “novelist.” Someone whose sole bread and butter is writing novels. I maybe a “writer,” but I haven’t sold a single work of fiction yet. Well, maybe I can consider the ads and marketing promos I work on as some type of fiction, lol.

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